- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — Three college students, including two aspiring actors known on campus as pranksters, were arrested yesterday in a string of nine church fires across Alabama.

Federal agents said the defendants claimed the first few fires were set as “a joke” and the others were started to throw investigators off the track.

Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, said the church arsons did not appear to be “any type of conspiracy against organized religion” or the Baptist faith. With the arrests, he said, “the faith-based community can rest a little easier.”

Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr., both 19-year-old students at Birmingham-Southern College, appeared in federal court and were ordered held on church-arson charges pending a hearing tomorrow.

Matthew Lee Cloyd, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also was arrested. He also had attended Birmingham-Southern, a Methodist liberal-arts college.

The fires broke out at five Baptist churches in Bibb County south of Birmingham on Feb. 3 and four Baptist churches in west Alabama on Feb. 7. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had made the arsons its top priority, with scores of federal agents joining state and local officers.

“While all three are entitled to have their day in court, we are very hopeful that this is the end to the fear that has been rampant in west Alabama,” said Rep. Artur Davis, Alabama Democrat.

According to court papers, federal agents traced tire tracks found at some of the churches to one suspect’s parents, who then acknowledged their son was involved.

Five churches were destroyed and four damaged. In many cases, the fire was set in the sanctuary near the altar. No one was injured.

Acquaintances said Mr. DeBusk and Mr. Moseley were both amateur actors who were known as pranksters and dreamed of becoming stars. They performed in campus plays and appeared in a documentary film.

Mr. Moseley confessed to the arsons after his arrest, investigators said in court papers.

An ATF affidavit presented at the initial court appearance said Mr. Moseley told agents that he, Mr. Cloyd and Mr. DeBusk went to Bibb County in Mr. Cloyd’s Toyota sport utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Mr. Cloyd as saying Mr. Moseley did it “as a joke and it got out of hand,” the affidavit said.

Mr. Moseley also told agents that the four fires in west Alabama were set “as a diversion to throw investigators off,” an attempt that “obviously did not work,” the affidavit said.

Agents analyzed tire tracks found at the scene of six fires and reviewed records of local motorists who had purchased that model, one of whom was Mr. Cloyd’s mother.

The day before the arrests, authorities spoke with Mr. Cloyd’s parents, Kimberly and Michael Cloyd. Michael Cloyd said his son admitted that “he knew who did it and he was there,” court papers showed.

An attorney for Mr. Cloyd, Tommy Spina, declined to comment on the charges but added: “This is not a hate crime. This is not a religious crime.” All three men are white; the nine churches are a mix of mostly white and mostly black congregations.

An attorney for Mr. DeBusk did not return a message seeking comment, and court files did not list an attorney for Mr. Moseley.

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